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SHOTS, TOKS AND LOBBIES: THE TWISTED SPREAD OF MASS SHOOTINGS IN THE UNITED STATES

June 7, 2022

There’s nothing that can instill fear in a student quite like hiding underneath the shadow of your classroom’s door during a lockdown drill, knowing that years before, years before you were born, there were no lockdown drills, no school shooting prevention strategies. That then, there was a student, like you, still hiding beneath desks and doors, only not out of a drill’s sake, but nothing short for their life's sake.

That you have the past failures, the past massacres, to thank for your school’s extra safety policies…

Which do not work as well as you’d like to believe.

In 2019, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District was given $69,000 from a state grant to “enhance physical security” in their schools as a way to “harden” them against school shootings. However, experts in school security practices have analyzed the previous hardening practices of other districts. This reliance on arming teachers, increasing security, one-door policies, or adding more funding isn’t the most effective way to prevent school shootings. Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at the New Mexico State University, states if we continue our “piecemeal approach” to mass shooting prevention, “then [we’ll] never succeed” at preventing mass shootings (McCullough and McGee, “Texas Already ‘Hardened’ Schools,” 2022).

Histogram of United States mass shootings since 1966, with a moving average line.

This year, after Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas became subject to one of the bloodiest mass shootings since the Sandy Hook school massacre, one of the first critiques of the school itself was how well it practiced those lockdown drills and shooting prevention policies it reinforced three years ago. It appears the school’s prevention policies weren’t faulty, or at least the sole reason, why over twenty people were killed that day. That said, the Uvalde police force was also under criticism for their attempts to stop the massacre, as they went through a recent mass shooting training, which the responding police did not follow (Baker and Goldstein, “Uvalde had Prepared for School,” 2022).

Within the past twenty years, more than 95% of United States public schools have implemented active shooter drills, with over forty states requiring them at their state level (“The Impact of Active Shooter Drills in Schools,” 2021). The type and intensity of these drills vary wildly throughout schools, though, ranging from simple security checks orchestrated by police to paying masked actors to walk around the school with fake weapons (Pierpoint, “US School Shootings,” 2019). Such drill policies were established after the massacre that happened at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. Since then, there have been over 103 mass shootings in the United States alone (The Violence Project Database, 2022).

On the federal level, there have not been any changes to gun policies-- except for the ban on assault weapons expiring in 2004 (Lopez, “20 Years After Columbine,” 2019). This ban was not renewed in large part to NRA lobbying efforts (“History of Gun Control,” 2022).

Area chart indicating the amount of mass shootings every year in the United States since 1966, paired with the average death rates per year. On top of these area charts is a line showing how many assault rifles are used yearly in mass shootings.

Even though the United States only makes up less than 5% of the overall world population, we contribute to 31% of all mass shootings (“Mental Illness Isn’t Main Driver,” 2019). More than 200 homicides involving guns occurred only within the first five months of 2022 (Ledur and Rabinowitz, “There Have Been Over 250 Mass Shootings,” 2022), so I find it hard to believe that the current mass shootings preventions and the “thoughts and prayers” called on by governors and congressmen will keep us safe for much longer (Carbonaro, “Republicans Send Their Thoughts and Prayers,” 2022). It’s pretty hard to believe that keeping citizens safe is our government’s top priority when politicians still speak at NRA (National Rifle Association) conventions happening days after horrific mass shootings, where in light of recent violence, the Secret Service bans all guns at the speeches (Hernandez, “Guns are Banned During Trump’s Upcoming Speech,” 2022).

I am no statistician, mental health, or gun safety expert, but through using public databases, resources, and case studies, I can show how the United States mass shooting epidemic is impacted by (but not limited to) the toxic spread of mass shooting information across social and news channels, the well-established lobbies of gun enthusiasts, and the pitiful narrative we’ve built around mass shooters that continue to inspire mass shooter copycats. While mass shootings cannot be solved with a simple gun policy or training sequence, awareness, or at least some exposure to how these factors impact mass shootings, and likewise the communities which have to recover from them, is at least one step in the right direction.

While there is no one set definition of a mass shooting, the most followed one, created by the Congressional Research Service, states that a mass shooting is: “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms—not including the offender(s)—within one event, and at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle)” (“Methodology,” 2022). See now how this definition of a mass shooting is very restrictive, regarding the timeline, location, and how many people are killed (not only injured). The dataset I use for this essay, provided by The Violence Project, follows this definition and is very limited in what they document as a mass shooting. With this in mind, other online resources may define a mass shooting differently and/or label more homicides as mass shootings than what’s listed in this database (“Methodology,” 2022).

The homicides that fit under this definition of a mass shooting only make up less than 1% of all gun violence that occurs in the United States every year (“Methodology,” 2022). While 22% of all gun violence involves multiple victims, the ones which are labeled as “mass shootings” have six times the likelihood to make the news compared to any other gun violence (“Study: Media’s Reporting Does Not Reflect Reality,” 2020). Still, for the scope of this essay, I will continue to focus on homicides which can be defined as mass shootings per the definition provided above with the full understanding that this is only just a fraction of gun violence in the United States, albeit one of the most-publicized fractions.

The Violence Project’s database documents all mass shootings from 1966 onward, and it is frequently updated to highlight new information released or to document more recent shootings (The Violence Project Database, 2022). The most recent shooting listed in this database currently is the Buffalo supermarket massacre (The Violence Project Database, 2022).

In modern connotations, a “shooter” is known as the perpetrator (or one of the perpetrators) of a mass shooting. Reviewing all the available data on these perpetrators, most shooters are identified as white, aged 20-30, male, nonimmigrant, single, heterosexual, Christian, and with a preexisting criminal record. Only 21% of all shooters are known to be bullies, and only 17% are known to have been bullied themselves (The Violence Project Database).

Visual breakdown of the demographic of United States mass shooters.

One of the first red herrings discussed by (usually right-wing) politicians after a mass shooting is how the shooter was mentally ill. Following the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, president Trump and Texas governor Greg Abbott focused their remarks of the shooting on mental health, Abbott saying “[mental] health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence” (Matthews, “Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Mass Shootings,” 2019). On the contrary, only 41% of shooters are known to have a clinically-diagnosed mental illness prior to the shooting (The Violence Project Database, 2022). Also, mentally ill people have a much more likelihood to be the victims of violence rather than being the perpetrators (Matthews, “Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Mass Shootings,” 2019). This same fixation on the shooters’ mental health status is repeated through the NRA’s public responses, despite the federal law prohibiting any person that “had been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution” from purchasing a firearm or ammunition of any kind (“Possession of Firearms by People with Mental Illness,” 2021).

Now, most shooters, roughly 81%, show signs of crisis leading up to their mass shooting (The Violence Project Database, 2022). Showing signs of crisis is not the same as having a clinically-diagnosed mental illness. Anyone can have poor mental health that can result in a crisis, not everyone can (and will have) a diagnosed mental illness in their lifetime (“What is a Mental Health Crisis?,” 2022). While the majority of white shooters are romanticized as mentally-ill victims, it’s interesting to see how shooters with minority statuses, such as black shooters, rarely receive such treatment. Black shooters are never described as “coming from a good environment” in the media and are rarely glamoured by any potential mental illnesses (Grabmeier, “White Mass Shooters Receive Sympathetic Treatment,” 2018).

Bar visualization of the different types of crisis behaviors are shown in mass shooters.

In tandem with the false narrative that most shooters are mentally ill, this idea that most shootings are spur-of-the-moment “snap” occurrences is also false. Most shooters show signs of crisis, some of which involve increased aggression, months before they enact a shooting. About 44% of shooters’ plans are leaked before the event (The Violence Project Database, 2022). Because most shooters show signs of crisis and/or plan out their attacks in advance, we have the chance to provide support and crisis intervention strategies before it’s too late. We have the chance to be proactive in preventing mass shootings (“Stop Mass Shootings Before They Happen, 2022). All of this isn’t to say that mental health isn’t important when discussing the factors of mass shootings-- most prevention strategies involve providing proper mental health treatment, let alone providing proper mental health services to the community after a mass shooting occurs. Mental health and mental illness support are only a sliver of mass shooting prevention-- and one most politicians who hark on mental illness being the sole cause of mass shootings don’t prioritize (Al-Arshani, “Abbott Blamed Texas School Shooting on Lack of Mental Health Resources,” 2022).

So, then what’s the most consistent and common factor across all mass shootings, if not mental illness?

Guns.

With the invention of the 24/7 news cycle and social media platforms such as Facebook, and Instagram, mass shootings have gotten a lot of limelight in news and on social media platforms. In the thirteen days following a mass shooting, especially one that has been widely publicized via the internet, there is an increased chance for another mass shooting to occur (Meindl and Ivy, “Mass Shootings,” 2017).

With the rapid integration of such media, the footage and visuals of the shootings themselves have become more readily accessible online on these very platforms. This May, the perpetrator of the Buffalo supermarket shooting attached a GoPro camera to a helmet and live-streamed their attack on Twitch. The live stream was taken down after two minutes, but the footage was then found on another site called Streambable, which had over three million views before it was taken down (Clark, “Buffalo Shooting: Livestreamed,” 2022).

The saturated coverage of mass shootings right after they occur has readily introduced a new concept into our culture, called copycat shootings. A copycat shooting is a mass shooting (or in some cases, an attempt at a mass shooting) in which the perpetrator pulls direct influence from a previous mass shooting, usually wishing to seek the same levels of fame as the original shooter. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) concluded that most copycats today have been awfully “radicalized” through the spread of shooter information online (“Public Mass Shootings,” 2022). In some cases, the copycat has cited influence from other mass shootings in their manifestos, and in some others, have directly copied language used in previous shooter’s manifestos in their own (Starr, “Buffalo Gunman Copied Christchurch Shooter,” 2022).

The threat of copycat mass shootings is real, and in some cases carries heavy consequences-- after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, 638 copycat threats to other schools were reported nationwide (Pew et. al, “Does Media Coverage Inspire Copy Cat Mass Shootings?,” 2022). Following the Oxford school shooting in 2021, many students on TikTok proposed vague bomb and/or shooting threats to schools in the United States. Many schools, specifically in the Michigan and Washington areas, closed down the schools on Friday 17th-- the rumored date when most shootings were proposed to happen-- or at least increased security at the schools (Querolo, “Across the U.S., School Shooting Threats on TikTok Prompt Closures and More Police,” 2021). When TikTok was asked why this social media challenge went viral, they said there was no evidence that such threats existed. By the end of the day when these “school shooting copycat threats” spread across their platform (and even reached Snapchat and Facebook), such threats could not be found (but there were still some videos asking students to avoid schools the following day) (Cheng and Paúl, “Law Enforcement, Schools Downplay Unconfirmed TikTok Shooting Threats,” 2021).

Aside from limiting the number of press shooters receive, experts have suggested altering the narratives and attention spent on the shooters themselves in the media in order to curb the number of copycats. Portraying the shooter’s actions as shameful and pitied light may help prevent the over-romanticization of the shooters and the shootings themselves, lessening the hype and trending heat surrounding the event. The “Don’t Name Them” campaign has asked that the name(s) of the perpetrators(s) not be released anywhere on social media, to prevent research stints and fixations on the shooters (Meindl and Ivy, “Mass Shootings,” 2017).

Recently, leaked documents portray how social media tech giants such as Meta have their algorithms intentionally support and promote content that has more radically-emotional responses (Chakradhar, “More Internal Document Show how Facebook’s Algorithm Prioritized Anger,” 2021). This issue with mass shooting information spreading across the internet like wildfire is a footnote of some of the other discussions we have around tech ethics and social media polarization and radicalization, but it’s all the more important to understand that unethical tech practices that prioritize profit and data mining have real and fatal consequences.

Currently, there are only two other countries that allow their citizens the constitutional right to keep and bear arms: Mexico and Guatemala. Other countries, such as Bolivia, Columbia, and Liberia, once had similar laws protecting the citizen’s right to bear arms but were repealed or removed (Weiss and Pasley, “Only 3 Countries in The World Protect the Right to Bear Arms in Their Constitutions,” 2019).

The United States’ second amendment has been interpreted in multiple ways over the past centuries, the main ones either emphasizing the collective population’s right to bear arms or the individual’s right to bear arms. The collective interpretation assumes that this amendment was intended for the maintenance of militias, whereas the individual interpretation more relies on the assumption that this amendment was meant to secure an individual’s own right to self-defense from crime. However, some historians read the second amendment as a proper mix of these two ideas, since the Founding Fathers most likely saw the right to bear arms as a collective and individual right: “there was an individual right in order to fulfill the collective right of serving in the militia.” And, from the very first introduction of this amendment, there were laws prohibiting some people from purchasing guns, some of the earliest renditions prohibiting Indigenous people, slaves, indentured servants, and certain professions from legally obtaining guns (“History of Gun Control,” 2022).

Roughly 82% of guns used in mass shootings are known to be legally obtained (legal at the time and in the state of the purchase, that is), but legally-obtained guns have been historically bought through legal loopholes, legal infringes, or faulty restrictions (The Violence Project Database, 2022). For instance, three of the guns used in the Columbine massacre were bought at The Tanner Gun Show from unlicensed sellers (“Where’d They Get Their Guns?,” 2001), and this “gun show loophole” was only recently closed by Barack Obama during his presidency (“History of Gun Control,” 2022). Recently, the Uvalde school shooter legally bought their rifles the day after their eighteenth birthday, without the need of a license in order to open carry (Oxner, “Uvalde Shooter Legally Bought AR Rifles,” 2022). The “Charleston loophole” bill was passed after a shooter shot and killed some members of a congregation at a church in Charleston, South Carolina when the background check for a gun they wanted to purchase was not completed in less than three days, so the gun seller gave them the weapon.

Stacked column chart of the different categories of weapons used in mass shootings each year.

In line with the loopholes and infringes listed above, the threat of neighboring states with fewer gun restrictions greatly plagues states with strict gun policies. Every Town Research, an independent research organization, states that out of “all guns showing up at crime scenes after crossing state lines, four out of five come from states that lack good background check laws” (“Gun Safety Policies Save Lives,” 2022).

Many pro-gun or gun-profiting organizations, such as the NRA, have been notorious for heavily lobbying for looser gun policies. The NRA spent roughly $28.5 million on Republican candidates’ campaigns in the 2020 election (“Gun Control Topic Overview,” 2022), only a sliver of their overall expected expenditures that year: $250 million, which greatly outnumbers the amount of spending all the country’s gun control advocacy groups piled together (“US Gun Control,” 2022).

As I stated before, from politicians and from the NRA alike, whenever a mass shooting occurs, there seems to be a passing of good intent or “thoughts and prayers” to the people affected-- which has been a boiler-plate response used since the Columbine massacre, as a way to deflect any blame or consequences projected at these parties. In a leaked phone call among NRA senior leaders following the Columbine massacre, Wayne LaPierre mentioned how the board will secretly provide talking points to Congress members regarding what to say when prompted with questions involving gun rights. The seniors even discussed raising a support fund for the families of the Columbine victims, but Tony Makris said that gesture would make it seem as if the NRA is to blame for the massacre. In the end, no such fund was created. They decided to carry on with their annual conference (which was held in Denver that year), and only sent their thoughts and prayers to the victims of the massacre, swearing up and down those mass shootings are a social issue and have nothing to do with guns and gun acquisition policies (Mak, “A Secret Tape Made After Columbine Shows the NRA's Evolution on School Shootings,” 2021).

Mass shootings in the United States are only one piece of a whole picture of the contagious hate, divide, and polarity spreading through our governmental and social systems. The threats and casualties of mass shootings continue to bleed into many other issues we have today, from mental health to social media algorithms, data privacy and radicalized polarity, and much more. For twenty years, we’ve believed that simply locking the doors at a school, having lockdown drills, or even pouring more money into school security will help solve the issue. Obviously, as shown through the rapid spread of phone-filmed videos of students under the active attack of a shooter, through a fourth-grader from Robb Elementary testifying in front of congress to preach how she covered herself in her friend’s blood to survive the Robb Elementary massacre (Figueroa, “Fourth Grader who Survived Uvalde School Shooting Will Testify Before Congress,” 2021), those beliefs aren’t helping.

We’ve made mass shootings an issue that cannot be easily solved, through our years and years of political turmoil and illogical fallacies (on all sides of political and social spectrums). Again, I am not an expert on anything in the topics listed above. I have only used the resources, information, and databases publicly available to everyone to gather this information.

And, at the end of the day, I only know what it’s like to be raised in a community deeply affected by a mass shooting years before I was born, what it’s like to keep up with the newest revisions to mass shooting safety practices (even though I know they’ll change in a few months). I only know, as a student who fears for their life every time they’re in a public space, to locks, light, and be out of sight at the first echo of a loud noise.

Abbott blamed Texas school shooting on lack of mental health resources. But he reportedly cut more than $200 million from the department that handles them. (2022, May 29). Business Insider. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.businessinsider.com/abbott-cut-mental-health-services-funding-in-texas-2022-5?international=true&r=US&IR=T

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DU Data Visualization EDP Final, Spring 2022.
Copyright © 2021 Kathryn Lichlyter. All rights reserved.